Iraqi security forces stand guard in front of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Baghdad, Wednesday, June 5, 2024. The recent protests — apparently organized by supporters of Iran-backed, anti-American militias in Iraq — reflect surging anger against the United States, Israel’s top ally, over the war in Gaza.

Iraqi security forces stand guard in front of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Baghdad, Wednesday, June 5, 2024. The recent protests — apparently organized by supporters of Iran-backed, anti-American militias in Iraq — reflect surging anger against the United States, Israel’s top ally, over the war in Gaza. (Ali Jabar/AP)

BAGHDAD — The elite Iraqi counterterrorism force that helped vanquish the Islamic State is back patrolling the streets of Baghdad — but this time they have a new mission: protecting U.S. restaurant franchises from vandals angry over the Gaza war.

In recent weeks, assailants have targeted several U.S. and American-style food chains as part of an “economic boycott” of brands they say help fund the Israeli military’s actions in Gaza. The attacks, including assaults by masked men on branches of KFC and Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken, began in late May after Iran-backed Shiite militias called on their followers to protest the businesses.

The militias, their statement said, “reject the use of Iraqi territory for investment projects” whose profits they claim are funneled to Israel and its armed forces. The United States is Israel’s closest ally and chief supplier of weapons and aid, but that assistance comes largely from the government.

Iraq has responded to the unrest by deploying U.S.-trained counterterrorism units across Baghdad to guard against more violence. An effort, analysts say, both to reassure foreign investors and signal to powerful, pro-Iran groups that government forces are in control.

“It feels weird to be deployed to protect a restaurant,” said Ali, 23, a member of the Counter-Terrorism Service now stationed in the bustling Karrada neighborhood of central Baghdad, where several international franchises are located.

“We are special forces, not bodyguards,” he said, speaking on the condition he be identified only by his first name, as he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Targeting American brands as a way to protest U.S. foreign policy is common in the Middle East and globally. When the war between Israel and Hamas broke out last fall, and a McDonald’s franchise in Israel said it would provide free meals to soldiers, several branches of the chain were vandalized in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey.

Suspects in Iraq have also thrown sound bombs at a language institute and an office of Caterpillar Inc., the U.S. construction equipment manufacturer that supplies the Israeli military with armored bulldozers. Small protests were held outside the Baghdad offices of PepsiCo and Procter & Gamble, the Associated Press reported.

“We are a group of people from this nation that protested against American interests,” said one participant, a member of the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he helped carry out attacks. “We will continue the boycott until all American interests are closed.”

Shiite militias loyal to Iran hold significant political and military power in Iraq, and have long opposed the U.S. military presence here and in the region. The United States has about 2,500 U.S. troops and personnel in Iraq to advise and assist local security forces.

Earlier this year, militias operating under the umbrella of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq claimed responsibility for a drone attack that killed three U.S. service members in neighboring Jordan. After the United States retaliated, killing a senior Kataib Hezbollah commander in central Baghdad in February, the militias pulled back from targeting U.S. facilities.

But few expected them to set their sights on burger and fried chicken joints popular with Iraqis in the capital.

It was a normal weekday night in Baghdad last month when the chaos first erupted at a new KFC branch on Palestine Street. Dozens of people, wearing masks and armed with sticks, descended on the establishment, breaking windows, throwing chairs and destroying kitchen equipment while patrons hid or fled.

Salam Abdul Karim, a 43-year-old engineer, was dining with his family at the time. He said his 8-year-old daughter was facing the door when the assailants entered.

“Once she saw them, she was scared, and said to look behind me,” he said. “For a few seconds, I didn’t know what to do. Then I immediately told my wife we should leave, as they started to smash the restaurant’s equipment.”

Security forces nearby fired warning shots in the air to disperse the crowd. No employees or customers were physically harmed. But similar attacks also took place at branches of Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken and the Jordanian-owned Chili House, an American-style burger chain.

The Baghdad-based owners of all three establishments declined to comment for security reasons.

“What happened in Baghdad … was an obvious move to send a message that they still have power,” Hamid al-Sayid, an independent politician, said of the militias, adding that the message is aimed at leaders in both Baghdad and Tehran.

The Interior Ministry said it apprehended suspects believed to be involved in the attacks. And the Security Media Cell, an official body disseminating security information, called the attacks a “desperate attempt to destabilize the country and harm its reputation.”

But the government response has largely been to target “only the low rank” militia members, “without targeting the senior network,” Iraqi academic Akeel Abbas said.

“The biggest loser in this equation is the prime minister, because what is happening is the opposite of the message he is trying to deliver in attracting investment,” he said.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani has sought to diversify the economy, which relies heavily on oil revenue, and attract U.S. and foreign capital to Iraq.

In a statement on May 30, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Alina L. Romanowski, condemned “recent violent attacks against U.S. and international businesses.”

“These attacks endanger Iraqi lives and property, and could weaken Iraq’s ability to attract foreign investment,” she wrote on X.

For retired Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Taie, now a security analyst, Sudani’s move to deploy the counterterrorism service was both a sign of the militias’ strength, and of the government’s willingness to “do whatever it takes to impose the law.”

The counterterrorism fighters like Ali are now at all major intersections in Baghdad. But the violence has put many business owners on edge.

Zain Mohammed owns a cafe in Baghdad. “My cafe is right next to Skechers, and I am concerned they will destroy my cafe as well when they attack it,” he said.

Some restaurants with foreign-sounding names have rushed to issue statements clarifying that they are local businesses with no ties to U.S. corporations.

“We would like to announce that our restaurant is a pure Iraqi brand,” the Ghost Burger fast food chain wrote on its Facebook page. “And has no link with any foreign company.”

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